"On my first day back a lot of the Lords were saying, 'There but for the grace of God go I'..."
In July 2011 Lord Hanningfield was jailed after being convicted of six counts of false accounting. In April, he returned to the House of Lords after paying back the money he stood accused of falsely claiming. In the third instalment of the Yellow Advertiser's exclusive interview series with
the peer, he tells Charles Thomson how his new parliamentary priority is crime prevention.
Weds 6th June 2012, Yellow Advertiser
“It's turned a bit colder today,” says Lord Hanningfield as he enters the Barge Inn. “All this heat hasn't been good for Jefferson, with his big black coat. He's used to the cold. He's a mountain dog. Did you see his picture in the Guardian?”
Hanningfield and his canine companion recently appeared in a Guardian article about life after the expenses scandal, with which the Lord has become synonymous.
He was jailed last year for falsely claiming for overnight stays and use of a parliamentary car, but has always maintained he claimed the expenses in error.
“They just filmed him for Anglian TV, too,” he continues. “It's a segment about me, but part of it is about Jefferson. I had to take him for a long walk so they could film him.
“He's getting more publicity than me!" he laughs. "We're both famous now.”
The Anglian TV segment will focus on Hanningfield's return to the House of Lords.
He returned after Easter and says he has attended 10 or 11 times so far.
“I had to get used to wearing a tie again,” he says. “I hadn't worn a tie for about a year, except one time when I went to a House of Lords meeting where they decided how much I had to pay back and everything. Now I have to wear a suit and tie every day again.
“I was up there for four days last week. It was so hot. I had to wear a suit and tie every day. It was too hot for that.”
The only other downside to his return is travelling in and out of London.
“Commuting is quite hard. You can never really depend on it. On a good day I can do it in about an hour and a quarter. On another day it might take two and a half hours.
“Sometimes I would have to speak in the Lords at two o'clock and the Lords is very strict. It's not like council where you could be a bit late if you wanted to. That's why I tended to depend on the car so much. That was part of my downfall. That's what comes from working too hard.”
On his first day back Hanningfield was issued with a desk, a PC and a Blackberry mobile phone.
He was supposed to share his office with Baroness Tonge, “but she's been expelled by the Lib Dems because she wants to blow up Israel of something.
“One peer said to me, 'Poor you. Three months in prison and now you're sharing an office with Baroness Tonge!'”
He says his fellow Lords have expressed sympathy over his prosecution.
He recalls: “On my first day back a lot of the Lords were saying, 'There but for the grace of God go I' and 'Paul, you drew the short straw'.
“Eighty-five per cent of the Lords were claiming full attendance – the maximum amount you can claim. I was just ticking all three boxes like they were.”
Thus far, Hanningfield has steered clear of Lords debates, which he says the public is largely uninterested by.
He says his central focus is prison reform.
“We have too many people in prison who are costing the country millions of pounds and they could be doing much more productive stuff,” he says. “A lot of people have been in prison 15 times. What's the point?”
Hanningfield believes more community service sentences are the answer.
“Probation recommended me for community service rather than prison,” he says. “But I was always going to be found guilty and I was always going to go to prison. Otherwise the headlines would have been 'Lord gets off scot free' or something. But it's not scot free!
“I came up with a sentence which I put to probation and they were quite keen on it but they said it would have taken too long to work it out.
“I suggested setting something up so young people could come to my farm and work with the animals and chickens. They might refuse to go to school, but come and work with the animals because they're interested. It would also have involved some basic arithmetic, which would have been helpful.”
The peer demonstrated his commitment to the cause earlier this week, when he took part in a Prisoner Advice Service debate about prison reform.
Before departing, he says: “I might be getting on in years but I have a fairly agile mind. Now I'm back at the Lords, I hope I can do a bit of good - prevent a bit of crime.
“We have very high crime rates so prison as a punishment obviously doesn't work very well. People say prison is too soft these days, but what are you going to do? Torture people?
“There must be some much more productive work that people in prison could be doing. They just need to come up with some more imaginative schemes.”
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